- By: Lekha Menon
“No matter what the economic situation is, once a cricket fan, always a fan,” says Mehar Sawlani, Director of Sales, Richmond Gulf tourism, a company specialising in inbound traffic to the UAE.
Sawlani’s optimism, shared by most of her peers, is due to the cricket carnival that recently hit the UAE—the Indian Premier League (IPL).
The richest and most spectacular marriage of sports, entertainment and glamour could not have come at a better time for a region that’s itching to return to normalcy after an impressive COVID19 fight. Armed with the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Safe Travels Stamp, the country is going all out to make the extravaganza a memorable affair.
For the average cricket buff, it’s a dream come true; after a tough lockdown and a disrupted social scene, the IPL provides the first real entertainment avenue in months. But more importantly, the tournament will be watched keenly by the hospitality and tourism industries that have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
Why the Venue Matters
The selection of the UAE as a venue is significant in itself. In a year that has seen big-ticket sporting events like the Olympics and Wimbledon being cancelled, the BCCI’s decision to stage the 13th edition of the tournament sends encouraging signs to the fraternity at large.
For the UAE, it provides the perfect opportunity to showcase its branding as a safe venue and an international sporting hub, besides injecting a much-needed dose of revenue.
However, hoteliers and travel industry experts are taking a cautious wait and watch approach.
Sidharth Mehta, Director and Head of BCRE, KPMG Lower Gulf bets on the UAE’s infrastructure facilities that offer a safe environment for the IPL. This, he believes, will boost confidence among future event organisers and the hospitality sector. “Apart from some of cricket’s most elite athletes, teams have travelled to the UAE with a contingent of support staff and administrators,” he adds. “Given that there is a well-established air corridor between the UAE and India, we may well see cricket lovers arriving for the matches, should spectators be permitted in the stands.”
As a venue, there is unanimous agreement that there couldn’t have been a better choice for the BCCI. The upward curve of cases in India, the logistical difficulty of crowd control and uncertainty of lockdown status in different states contrast dramatically with the pro-active implementation of safety and hygiene protocols and provision of a bio-secure environment in the UAE.
As Sawlani says, “The UAE continues to deploy technologically integrated advanced safety controls to prevent, monitor, detect and ring-fence any incidents with the tourism ecosystem.” In a nutshell, it’s a win-win, at least on paper.
Strict Measures are the Key
Not surprisingly, integral to the success of the event, are the measures and protocols. From the ‘smart ring’, a personal health tracking device introduced by Mumbai Indians to BCCI’s Bluetooth enabled contract tracing device and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) prepared in consultation with specialist firms, organisers are leaving no stone unturned.
Players were tested for COVID before they travelled and on arrival, were placed in quarantine. Travel is restricted to the game venue and return to the hotel, with very limited contact with outsiders. Crowds are not allowed at the stadium even now.
The hotels hosting the cricketers (check Box 2) are equally diligent. Each team is staying in separate properties, with most of them choosing either luxurious beachfront hotels on the Palm or uber-plush addresses in Abu Dhabi. With rates for these hotels ranging from Rs 14,500 onwards per night, experts believe it would give a huge boost to bottom-line.
As Mehta puts it, “Hotels stand to benefit not only from a direct influx of revenue, but also the positive publicity surrounding the tournament before the UAE’s tourism season.”
The Ancillary Players’ Role
Restaurants not far behind either! From sizzling discounts to socially distanced screenings, these hotspots are cashing in on the craze. Hospitality giant Emaar Hospitality Group’s restaurants have come up with irresistible offers while Century Village, a popular hangout in Old Dubai, is creating IPL buzz with alfresco dining and large TV screens.
Karan Bhambhani, Director, Mehfil Restaurant Management LLC, that owns Headlines Café and other lounges is hopeful that the IPL will encourage patrons back to the bar. “The lack of any cricket over the last six months has led to renewed enthusiasm for the IPL. With the T20 world cup being postponed as well, it’s great to have such an exciting tournament with the best players in the world right here in Dubai,” he says.
Bhambhani is candid about the stress that the lockdown caused his business. “Besides the financial losses, we have had to restructure the company to build a more sustainable future. Since the restart, it has taken some time, however, this past month has seen an improvement.”
What offers him further hope is that the initial scepticism in the dining out and nightlife sector has faded with people getting used to resuming their normal lives, albeit with precautions.
The additional silver lining is the renewed interest from Indians in India. Sawlani says she has been receiving numerous inquiries from India and the rest of the world for the last few weeks. Accordingly, Richmond Gulf Tourism has introduced specially curated packages in hotels (C Central Resort the Palm, Royal Central Hotel The Palm, Aloft Palm Jumeirah, Dukes the Palm, Fairmont the Palm and so on) with rates ranging from AED 404 (Rs 8,110) to AED 808 (Rs 16,226) per night.
The dampener is the restriction on crowding and group travel. But here’s where the UAE’s real estate players have pitched in.
Priced anywhere between AED 367 (Rs 7,370) to AED 11,017 (Rs 221,469) a night, depending on the size of the property, this would be a luxury experience like none other with safety given priority.
Mahtani adds that they have had several families from India who are now staying with them during the IPL. Like Karan, Mahtani too feels that once the games start kicking in, the interest will build up further.
Impact on Tourism: Hype or Fact?
These positive sentiments sound great but what about the real picture, when it comes to tourism? Rabia Yasmeen, Consultant, Sales and Payment, Euromonitor International provides the proverbial reality check. “The IPL won’t play a ‘big’ role but a level of momentum can be created to revive tourism,” she says. “However crowd gathering and group travel is also not taking place at the moment. If strict measures are in place there can be some level of recall for tourists to consider entertainment and sports events, but the government would have to take on the responsibility of managing a sizable crowd safely.”
Rabia believes, even if there is an uplift in hotel performance for Abu Dhabi and Dubai, restrictions in cross-emirate movement and safety concerns can be a discouraging factor. “Expats with families or groups would be less visible supporting the event than normal. Instead, there would be a greater trend of watching the tournament on digital and other media platforms,” she reasons.
These restrictions might even hamper profitability with attendee turnout, sponsorships and other ancillary revenues such as merchandise being impacted. “Further there can be an impact on teams as well, where certain players may not be eligible to play if detected with symptoms or conditions,” she says.
So Where Will Profits Come From?
Ahmed looks at the larger picture. “With the influx of corporate sponsorships, teams and extended service providers from the IPL world, this will provide additional revenues towards the travel and tourism partners involved,” he says. Rabia adds that sponsors can treat the event as an opportunity to create and maintain bonds with their audiences and remain relevant. “In terms of the monetary return, there would be an impact on the physical event but with wide media coverage, we can also not forgo its reach globally and what it would still represent to audiences during the times of a pandemic as a message of continuity, resilience and starting over.”
A lot will change when fans are allowed in the stadium especially since commercial flights have opened up (with protocols). Karan says, “The hotels where we are located do have good occupancy rates currently but are expected to get better in the following months. If fans will be allowed during the latter part of the tournament, we can expect people from India to come to Dubai to watch the matches.”
The Big Tourism Opportunity
Over and above, analysts agree that the IPL provides a great opportunity for Dubai Tourism which has been promoting domestic and regional travel of late. “Dubai tourism can use the event to encourage local visitors from across the UAE as well as fans from regional markets like Oman,” says Rabia. “This can feature air and hotel offers or something as simple as free healthcare for visitors if contracted with the symptoms,” she says. Her other suggestions:
* Use the IPL to boost related industries such as food and beverage and retail through audience engagement on social and digital media platforms.
* Offer coupon codes or gift cards for attendees or viewers supporting the game from their homes.
* Virtual tours of the stadium for the audiences to boost engagement.
* Organise live chats with popular players.
* Hotels can also offer staycation packages to residents and packages coupled with retreat services to benefit from the event.
In a nutshell, while the IPL may not be the panacea for the ills facing the tourism sector, robust fan participation can start the march towards pre-COVID normalcy. Even if it means cheering Watson’s sixes and Virat’s catches with masks on!